Nicolas Winding Refn and the Search for a Real Hero

By Robert Koehler

“Hey, do you wanna see somethin’?”—Driver in Drive

In the middle of Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive, a film punctuated by extreme flourishes of violence and vengeance, there is a period of peace. It occurs when Driver (Ryan Gosling), a quietly contained guy who holds down three jobs—auto mechanic, movie stunt driver, and getaway driver-for-hire—is asked by his auto-shop boss (Bryan Cranston) to drive home customer and Driver’s neighbour Irene (Carey Mulligan) and her little boy. En route, Driver takes a surprising detour from the street down to the concrete banks of the Los Angeles River, one of the city’s most iconic images, a grand public-works project born out of vast and tragic flooding the city endured generations ago. The river, choked into a narrow canal and surrounded by an elegantly paved canyon, has been used in too many movies and TV shows to possibly count, most recently by Bruce La Bruce for daytime sequences of L.A. Zombie (2010). Driver, true to character, uses it as a racetrack and as a bit of stunt track—mildly, as a kid’s in the car, and he’s a gentleman at heart—but also as a road to get somewhere.

The typical deployment of the Los Angeles River in cinema is as a symbol of dead ends, final stops, the place where the city dies, and people along with it. Not so for Refn, for whom Los Angeles is a new city, a place of discovery. Viewed from the majestic prospect of a high angle in long-shot widescreen, Driver stops at the place where the concrete river ends and gives way to the wild river, a startling image even for native Angelenos. He knows these kinds of places, having driven everywhere (so, in reality, does Gosling, who knows the city expertly and drove Refn around town as research, inspiration, and preparation). Refn understands those many places in Los Angeles that make it fairly unique, and reverses the usual clichéd knock on the place as one long paved sprawl. Constantly, the paved cityscape surrenders to the natural world, sidewalks dissolve into dirt trails, roads simply stop, buildings reach their limit when faced with cliffsides, massive chaparral, impregnable mountain ranges that cut through the metropolitan area. Driver leads mother and son to the wild river for a Tom Sawyer afternoon under the sun, a Southern California utopia—the ultimate getaway—an idyll that defines Drive and Driver in fundamental ways.

Superficially an action movie, Drive is actually a film in search of romance, zigzagging through an obstacle course of fairy tale and myth, and a hall of mirrors in which characters can be read as fantasy projections of others while being aware of themselves as figures inside a myth. Beloved in Cannes after days of disappointing films in the competition, Drive was perhaps welcomed by some for the wrong reason: as some kind of new read on Melville’s Le samourai (1967), with Gosling processing Alain Delon’s stoic killer. For once, the director has a sound interpretation that he’s willing to share with whomever cares to listen: Refn correctly argues that Drive’s foundation is in fairy tale, particularly its thematic of a character’s discovery of his own heroism, which Driver finds through the course of nurturing and protecting Irene, who’s made paradoxically more vulnerable when her convict husband returns home from prison. The necessary elimination of dragons—in the form of Albert Brooks’ ice-cold mobster Bernie Rose and Ron Perlman’s put-upon mobster Nino, to say nothing of a few nameless hitmen along the way—doesn’t so much make Driver into a killer, although he wreaks revenge with frighteningly intelligent brutality. Rather, it transforms him into a mythical figure who satisfies the imaginings of those around him, including Irene, who can nevertheless only marvel at him while knowing she can never have him. This is vastly different from Melville’s heightened existential world of professional killers who function by a code and live like lone wolves, apparently free of the need for genuine and reciprocal human contact. Delon’s Samourai is a corporeal killing machine; Gosling’s Driver is a young man in formation, whose work comprises (per his three jobs) repair, escape, and entertainment, and who finds his self during a gauntlet that perhaps only he can survive—an accidental knight who slays the beast.

This is a far stretch from James Sallis’ novel on which Hossein Amini’s screenplay is based, and, as Refn describes it, wildly different from Amini’s previous drafts written as a potential Universal franchise for Hugh Jackman. Sallis’ superb, laconic book, hardboiled to the core, as affectionate toward its city as it is cynical about the city’s most famous (show) business, could have been adapted pretty closely, even with its obsessive (and perhaps needless) jumps in chronology. But a knowledge of the book is helpful in appreciating the grand achievement in American cinema that Drive is. Hollywood has always been open to the invasive notions of outsiders, particularly European directors with strong points of view. Lubitsch, Lang, Boorman, Preminger, Wilder, von Sternberg, Herzog, Verhoeven, and von Stroheim all managed to import their native sensibilities with little compromise into the Hollywood system, and generally thrived intact. Refn’s ambition is clearly to make big movies for large audiences by his own sometimes-radical standards, which include mixing the hyper-violent ecstasies of the Pusher trilogy (1996, 2004, 2005), highly theatrical characters like Tom Hardy’s Bronson (2008), dreamlike dances of death as in Valhalla Rising (2009), and the romance of transformation in Drive. His new film is an act of will, pulling a fine but fairly standard piece of high-class pulp into something richer and more dynamic, modern in its self-consciousness as a work of art and entertainment, and Wellesian in its capacity to astonish, shock, and tease the mind’s perceptions. The fact that Refn is soon making a re-do of Logan’s Run with Gosling is a suggestion of a large-scaled cinema that’s aware of its kinetic powers, its artistic breadth, and its ability to kick it into the fifth gear.

Cinema Scope: Unlike your past films, Drive isn’t a project you originated. Wasn’t it already a fairly old project before you became involved with it through Ryan Gosling?

Nicolas Winding Refn: Yes. Hoss [screenwriter Hossein Amini] had been working on the film for six years at Universal. He was trying to attack the book. When I read his Universal version, it was much more in the vein of a $60 million Fast and Furious movie, and Hugh Jackman had been attached. So it was really different from what we came up with. What happened was that I met with Hoss, and quickly realized that he’s a fantastic writer. After tackling this script for so long, he was looking for a way to get back to the book. It’s a wonderful novel, but the way that James Sallis writes it, it’s way out of chronological order, jumping back and forth in time constantly, and not really ideal in its structure for a film. Hoss had worked out a very good, accessible structure as a baseline, minimalizing things, streamlining things, maybe most important of all not killing the girl. So the next phase of changes became a very easy process, like cutting fat off a piece of meat that’s really tender and tastes really good. And then we worked to build up Driver’s character so that he was at the centre of things.

Scope: There are many changes from Sallis’ novel, but many things are preserved, and one of them is that Ryan Gosling’s character is known only as Driver, which lends him a mythical identity, like in the vein of the Man With No Name. On the other hand, a huge change from the novel is that Driver hardly talks at all.

Refn: Ryan said that it made sense for Driver to talk as little as possible, that he would only verbalize when things mattered to him. By making him more silent, it also gave him more mystery. I like that silence, and the course of finding one’s way into a character who talks as little as possible in interesting. It also lets us play with the notion that the most silent character is the most dangerous. So I began to remove lines. Through the course of the film, Driver begins to envision what he means to those around him. So does Irene: Is she in love with the idea of Driver or is she in love with the man? It’s like he’s a figment of her imagination. Is it her dream or not? Look at Tourneur’s films, and there’s a lot of this tension between a character’s sense of imagining and reality, in a way, between heaven and hell. He represents her needs, emotionally, spiritually, sexually. He’s the human being she needs to connect with, and then her husband comes home from prison and she needs a hero to protect her. He may be real, but he’s also doing part of what she needs in her own imagination. That’s why I think of Drive as a fairy tale. I’ve been reading the Grimms’ fairy tales with my daughter recently, so the fairy tale form has been very prominent in my mind. The movie is constructed in the nature of a fairy tale, and this is why I think it makes the movie feel dreamlike. Yet it’s set in real time, and situated in a real, contemporary world, so things feel a bit off, even though everything is happening in front of you on screen. Look at a movie like Pretty Woman (1990), which in theory has a dark, even morbid heart, but is able to convert itself into a champagne movie by incorporating the fairy tale. On the surface, it’s one thing, but underneath, it’s completely different.

Scope: It’s striking when watching Drive that if a viewer didn’t know about Sallis’ novel or Amini’s long history with adapting it, and only came to it because you’re the director, they might wrongly conclude that it came almost entirely out of your head. Drive sometimes feels like a American extension of the Pusher trilogy, and like Mads Mikkelsen’s One Eye in Valhalla Rising, Driver is silent but deadly. The latest film also extends your fascination with criminals. Do you see Drive, despite its origins, as part of your artistic continuity?

Refn: Sure, it reflects virtually all of my interests and concerns with cinema. Driver is exactly my kind of movie character, with the sort of dilemma that I think is inherently cinematic. His dilemma is that he doesn’t belong to the day or the night. He’s caught between two worlds, he doesn’t know which one to belong to, and he ends up transforming himself into what he was meant to be, which is a hero, which he wasn’t aware of. All of my films are about transformations—that’s what connects Drive, Valhalla Rising, Bronson, and the Pusher trilogy. Bronson transforms himself into his own fantasy. Driver transforms himself from a human being into a real hero.

Scope: Just like the lyrics of the song, “A Real Hero” by College, that you use in the film and over the closing.

Refn: It was amazing that I found that song.

Scope: Yes, but were you at all concerned that the lyrics were too on-the-nose?

Refn: Some thought I went too far and was too on-the-nose, yes, but being on-the-nose in Drive isn’t a bad thing, because so much of Driver’s past is an enigma. All of his prior life in the novel was deliberately eliminated for the movie. I think this increases his sense of being a fairy-tale creature.  He’s much more fairy tale in nature than film noir, but because the film’s tone touches on film noir, that may be confusing for some. Leone and Melville also set many of their movies in a heightened reality, in an artificial world. They were concerned with heroes in the real world who have struggles because they’re not meant to be here. This really comes from the European tradition of translating crime films.

Scope: One of the pleasant surprises of the film is to ponder that as a younger European filmmaker who had never worked inside the Hollywood system before, you managed to make the film you intended. Did you expect this to happen?

Refn: It turns out that the making of Drive was quite similar to the making of Point Blank (1967), and also Bullitt (1968), even as the films themselves share several things in common. Lee Marvin insisted that John Boorman direct Point Blank—Marvin had that kind of clout by then. So did Steve McQueen, who demanded that Peter Yates direct Bullitt. Ryan insisted on me, same situation. What was good in my situation, like Boorman’s, is that we worked under our own terms, because we were under the complete protection of the star. Without that protection, the film wouldn’t have even resembled the one we made. I had a great, first-class experience in Hollywood. I arrived with the mindset ready to fight all the battles, because I had heard all of the horror stories. Maybe not every one of the producers always got what I was saying, but there was always support in the end. And then, once we were done, suddenly there was Cannes.

Scope: Since you are new to Los Angeles, I was amazed—as a native Angelino—at the film’s extraordinarily lived-in perception of the city. In that way, it also recalls Point Blank. How did you manage that?

Refn: I don’t have a car, so Ryan drove me around, mostly at night, and showed me all of the locations in the book. Based on these night drives, I basically decided where I wanted to shoot. I didn’t have the option of using a lot of locations, and we had six-and-a-half weeks to shoot the movie, so I had to be very specific. I used my low-budget formula, which is to choose three main locations. In this case, it was Downtown, the Valley, and Echo Park. I didn’t know any of these places, but I came to know them very well before shooting. We would go back to them again and again. We made a point of living near them as well: I had a house on—get this—Bronson Avenue, in Beachwood Canyon. It was near the Hollywood sign and close to the 101 Freeway, so we’d eat at The 101 Coffee Shop. In a real way, we were living the life of the film as we were making it.

We also lived together, and worked together. It was one of the conditions of my contract. So part of that meant that I cut the movie at my house. Carey was living in my house, my editor Matt Noonan was living there, my kids and my mom and stepfather were there too. It was very collaborative, a real family atmosphere. I also made sure that Hoss was living there. Once we got the money for production, I had a lot of script changes to make, and Hoss lived in the attic and would write in the morning. We then worked together in the afternoon on the script. I would then ride with Ryan at night.

Scope: There’s an argument if Drive is really film noir or not, and I tend to lean toward the “not” camp. But one thing it definitely shares with classic noir is its compact running time. Do you prefer short to long? I ask because so many filmmakers today tend to go long.

Refn: The script is 80 pages. It’s all about getting to the point; 90 minutes is our dream cycle. It’s a great pulp length, a great length for noir and classical Hollywood. I don’t know why the 90-minute length interests me, but all of my films are around that running time. I also like short novels and fast songs. On the other hand, I don’t have a short attention span. To the contrary: I used to play with Lego a lot, and I still do, so I can spend a long time looking at something. I actually want to exercise as much control as I can over my material, and my calculation is that the shorter and more compact the material is, the better I can control it. It then becomes more about it, and less about me.

Scope: One way in which the film departs from noir is its own self-consciousness, which comes through pretty overtly in the joke that Albert Brooks’ mob character Bernie Rose tells about how a critic termed the action movies he used to produce as “European.” But this is much more than an easy joke, though, isn’t it?

Refn: That joke is based on the idea that exactly what you’re watching is the kind of film that Bernie would have been producing in the ‘80s. But then, the joke turns into something else, because it reflects on Bernie’s own self-consciousness, even more than, as you say, the film’s own self-consciousness. It points to his imaginings, which is the case with every character surrounding Driver. Bernie is up against a stunt driver, which is what we see on screen, but this face-off is also a part of Bernie’s illusions and fantasies, just as Driver is a projection of Irene’s fantasies.

Scope: It creates a hall of mirrors effect, in which the film is both conscious of itself, and its characters, while the characters project their own fantasies onto others, have their own illusions, which then circles back into the film. More than Melville, which a good number of critics out of Cannes were bringing up as a reference to Drive, I was thinking much more of Orson Welles.

Refn: I agree. If you look closely at Drive, it’s very tied into, or maybe affected by, Touch of Evil (1958) and The Lady from Shanghai (1947). I was thinking about these two films a lot while making it.

Scope: There are mirrors, but there’s also the frame—the widescreen frame in which we see the film. Because you display an extremely acute sensitivity to the capacities of widescreen, it would be interesting to know how you compose for it.

Refn: The first thing I look for is the bottom of the frame, which then makes it easier to look at the centre of frame and the top of frame. How can the shot work if it doesn’t work at bottom of the frame? With this in hand, I have the sides and top and bottom, and then it gives me a symmetrical sense that makes the image most powerful. It’s such a wide image that you must be careful with it. Look at Leone or Ray, and you’ll see that they were also interested in the bottom of the frame. They cared so much about framing and they sought out those details.

Scope: Since Cannes, the scene that people tend to retain the most, the one that stands out in the highest relief, is the encounter in the elevator with Driver and the hit man after he kisses Irene. It’s notably not in Sallis’ novel, and suggests a fusion of operatic violence and high romance.

Refn: A week before shooting, I came up with the elevator scene. I always have one scene that’s the heart of the film. It came from a conversation with Matt. We work very intensely together; he’s very good at understanding my brain better than I do. I had this idea that if Driver and Irene could kiss and he could head-smash a guy right after that, it describes the entire film. It shows the dilemma that Driver can’t have Irene and can’t live with her, and he does whatever he needs to do by any means necessary.